As Israel transitions from yesterday’s Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) to today’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), there is an incredible number that links the day of mourning to the day of celebration. Over the past year, only three Israelis were killed in combat or terror attacks, which is the lowest number in Israel’s history; the previous low was eleven. That Israelis are literally safer and more secure than at any previous point in the country’s history is a result of too many interlocking variables to list comprehensively: from the end of conventional threats from Israel’s neighbors and Israel’s increasing acceptance in the region, to Israel’s extraordinary military capabilities that–particularly in Syria–have neutralized direct threats before they can be operationalized, to the institutionalization of constant cooperation between Israel and a highly trained and professional Palestinian Authority security apparatus. The challenge going forward is to build on this success, and identify ahead of time any emerging bumps that might upset the apple cart.
While a hot war with Iran is the most obvious arena for an increase in Israeli casualties, the other is a sudden shift in the West Bank and Gaza. It should not escape notice that violence and terror has historically risen following failed peace negotiations, which is a good reason not to push the parties together when they are as far apart as they currently are, and a new round of peace talks does not currently appear on the horizon. But there are other risks that are on the horizon that are easy to miss if one does not look at the full picture of what has kept the situation relatively quiet and stable.
The outgoing Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, General Kamil Abu Rokon, gave an interview on Sunday saying that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner who has proven himself to be against violence, and that Israel should behave differently with regard to the PA in order to bolster it rather than undermine it. Such sentiments about Abbas and the PA are commonplace among Israeli security officials, including many who are well-known hawks, yet given the intransigence Abbas has displayed in negotiations and the fact that most Israelis dismiss him as authoritarian and corrupt–charges with plenty of factual basis–it is easy to look forward to the post-Abbas period and assume that things may change for the better. All the more so over the past week in the wake of the Biden administration’s decision to resume funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and to NGOs operating in the Palestinian Territories, which has reinvigorated discussions about the Taylor Force Act and PA prisoner and martyr payments despite the fact that no U.S. money is going to the PA.
Abbas certainly comes with his own set of problems and challenges, but he is also one of the variables contributing to the historically low number of Israelis being killed in acts of nationalist terror. Abu Rokon is correct in highlighting Abbas’s forswearing of violence, and the fact that the PA security forces remain loyal to him ensures that they follow his lead. The potential upcoming Palestinian presidential elections and the popularity of the United Arab Emirates in the wake of the Abraham Accords has led some to speculate and even hope that Abbas’s Fatah rival Muhammad Dahlan-who has created his own independent parliamentary list-will emerge as the most powerful player in Palestinian politics and push Abbas aside, assuming that if that happens it will be to Israel’s benefit.
There is a world in which things might play out along that trajectory, but people might also be careful what they wish for. Dahlan’s history suggests that he does not share the same commitment to non-violence that Abbas does, and given years of Fatah purges of Dahlan’s supporters from the ranks, Dahlan’s ascendance would almost certainly result in reprisals, intra-Palestinian fighting, and a deteriorating security situation in the short term. There are also open questions as to how the PA security forces and the Tanzim militias would react, and given that Dahlan’s largest base of support is in Gaza, how that might contribute to fighting between Hamas and Dahlan supporters, with Iran, Turkey, and perhaps Qatar supporting Hamas from the outside and Egypt doing the same with Dahlan. This could play out in the most destabilizing way possible or none of it could materialize; the point is that Palestinian political instability is now approaching a confluence of events that could easily result in things boiling over in a way that will tangibly impact Israel.
There are similar questions surrounding the ongoing role and status of UNRWA. There is no dispute that UNRWA has serious and chronic problems, from corruption and mismanagement to bias against Israel to furthering a sense of dependency and victimhood. Unlike commonplace views of the PA as a flawed but necessary partner, it is difficult to find Israelis willing to go to bat for UNRWA. But while reforming, if not outright replacing, UNRWA should be an imperative, there is real danger to killing the organization and assuming that the vacuum it leaves behind will fill itself with anything good. Unless the U.S. wants to resume direct budgetary support to the PA–something that should not happen and is illegal under U.S. law until the PA reforms the prisoner and martyr payments system–then the PA will not have the capacity to take over UNRWA schools and health clinics in the West Bank, and the only alternative to UNRWA in Gaza is Hamas. Letting the entire system crumble and hoping that it creates enough pressure on the PA to carry out necessary reforms is a huge gamble, doesn’t answer the question of how to replace UNRWA in Gaza even if the PA does reform in response, and puts hundreds of thousands of bored and restless Palestinian children on the streets all day with nothing to do. No matter how problematic UNRWA is, the alternative at the moment is a bigger recipe for disaster when it comes to seeking to maintain a low level of violence in the West Bank and Gaza.
Much of Israel’s success in protecting its citizens is rooted in its own actions, but some of it is rooted in the current status of Palestinian politics and institutions. In order to continue to celebrate few–and hopefully one day soon, zero–Israeli lives lost to war and terror, it is necessary to examine whether highly imperfect situations might be made worse by taking risks whose payoffs are highly unpredictable.